Might Gene Roddenberry Have Saved the World?

Gene Roddenberry, a visionary (who passed away in 1991), has done more than just create Star Trek and inspire a loyal following of fans; he made the intersection of pop culture and societal impact possible. The recent growth of pop culture has provided individuals, celebrities, readers, and fans with a unique platform to drive meaningful conversations on a global scale. But how?

Star Trek boasts messages of inclusiveness as well as an optimistic view of humanity’s future. However, Star Trek and Roddenberry’s successive works imply that this positive future may materialize only after humanity meets a more challenging road on the way there. This may mean a great conflict or cataclysm on the way to a brighter future. Fans who have seen the film Star Trek: First Contact (1996) will recall the narrative’s back story – that a third world war in the mid-21st century had reduced civilization to a mash-up of regional coalitions and fragmented communities. However, in the imagined year 2063, the combination of Zephram Cochrane’s invention of interstellar warp drive, coinciding with the unprecedented arrival of an exploratory science vessel from the planet Vulcan, resulted in a world-unifying peace and optimism that helped create the Star Trekuniverse.

In the real-world history of Star Trek fandom, the TV and film franchise was threatened with premature cancellation in its second season of original broadcasts. It was saved by what has been acknowledged as one of the first massive fan write-in campaigns, organized by Bjo Trimble and her husband, John. The thousands of letters compelled the network to maintain the production of new episodes until the series’ demise at the end of its third season in 1969. With those thousands of mailed letters received, the broadcast network had no alternative but to acknowledge the show’s impact on viewers’ psyche.

What followed in the 1970s and today has been a succession of annual fan conventions and the rise of fan organizations. Those fan groups not only create their own Star Trek stories but also embrace and transmit the core values of inclusiveness, diversity, and exploration that Roddenberry seeded into his creation. Granted, many prolific writers, talented actors, and production staff have brought the show to prominence. However, Roddenberry was its creator and helmed its course so that others who followed him had a compass for their direction. The many episodes of the original series, its spin-off series, and film treatments bear Roddenberry’s mark. From the 1970s, each decade of young adults who have seen themselves as a witness to the ideas and values of Star Trek have been inspired to real-world careers in the sciences, military, government, medicine, engineering, and other areas. One example is the real-world engineering development of transparent aluminum (aluminum oxynitride) inspired by the fictional narrative of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986).

Genesis II & Planet Earth

However, fewer people are aware that in the early 1970s, following the initial cancellation of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry was on the cusp of producing another post-apocalyptic TV series (which tapped many of the core values of Star Trek), and was titled Genesis II (1973). Between 1973 and 1974, two related pilot TV films were aired, and a season’s raft of episodes was outlined to bring the series to air. Last year, March 23rd, 2023, observed the 50th anniversary of Genesis II’s initial broadcast, and April 23rd this month marks the 50thanniversary of its sequel, Planet Earth. However, unlike its Star Trek predecessor, Genesis II and Planet Earthinvolved humanitarian missions and ecological recovery on Earth as it struggled through the 22nd century in rebuilding after world conflict and catastrophe. It’s interesting to speculate that if Roddenberry had been given the green light and resources to produce whole seasons of Genesis II, he may have drawn on a similar quality of writers that would have likewise brought contemporary social issues and character development to the ideals of real-world stewardship.

Just as the space missions of Star Trek were guided by a United Federation of Planets and its naval subsidiary, Starfleet, the heroes of Genesis II and Planet Earth were members of an organization called PAX, made up of surviving scientists and peace workers, descendants of those living underground who had survived the catastrophe. Fortunately, PAX also had access to a vast continent-hopping hyperloop train (a Subshuttle) that enabled them to send teams to aid in trouble spots throughout the re-emerging world. One can only wonder, had Genesis II been fully developed as a TV series, perhaps with Roddenberry as Executive Producer, it may have gained a similar fan following as Star Trek has. Genesis II / Planet Earth had it had the rich history of its Star Trek cousin, could have spawned PAX-team fan groups worldwide.

But what does it matter? Why are we discussing science fiction, pop culture, and their attendant fan groups? That is because of the recent growth of Pop-Culture Philanthropy.

What is Pop-Culture Philanthropy?

Pop culture has been and can be used to create social change and raise awareness about important issues. It carries with it a sense of belonging and unity among different groups. It has also shaped public opinion, created social change, and influenced political decisions. Numerous people creatively involved with Star Trek have used their roles in the franchise to raise awareness of social issues, funnel resources for societal change, and promote social and technological solutions to our ongoing concerns on Earth.

For instance, The “Roddenberry Prize” (http://www.Roddenberryprize.org) is an annual 1.5 million dollar award that “supports early-stage ventures that leverage scientific breakthroughs or emerging technologies that hold the promise for a better future.” Another non-profit philanthropic organization was developed by Chase Masterson, who is known for her role on the Star Trek spin-off, Deep Space Nine. She founded the “Pop-Culture Hero Coalition” in 2013 to combat bullying in its many forms and to raise awareness of children’s mental health issues. See https://youtu.be/4fYk8azhzwI?si=uyJr5JgXMWiSPgpI. Also, The Pop-Culture Collaborative (http://popcollab.org) distributes an average of $3 million in grants annually to United States–based non-profit organizations, for-profit companies, and individuals (with fiscal sponsorship).

We can imagine that had Genesis II and Planet Earth survived as quality programs in our current society, some of their stories could have inspired pop-culture philanthropy that could extend to troubled geographic areas of our world today. However, we cannot know from the limitations of only two made-for-TV films. The global PAX missions of the films introduced us only briefly to oversimplified communities run by tyrannical aristocracies, enclaves ruled by evil warlords, and extreme matriarchies. The realities of any world are so much more complex and often require skilled diplomacy, humanitarian relief aid, ecological improvement, and the ethical reconstruction of native government.

Could Gene Roddenberry have saved the world just through his ideas? It’s never one person alone that saves a community or a world, but a powerful idea that takes root and blossoms in the hands and hard work of many. As we remember its forbears, Star Trek and Genesis II, and meet the 50th anniversary of Planet Earth, the possibilities are there to think about and promote our betterment as a world.


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